For the sake of my blood pressure and to stop stress-induced headaches, I’ve tried to avoid a) reading the newspapers daily in Cambodia and b) blogging about Cambodia. For better or worse, though, I am in a new work environment surrounded by people who choose to immerse themselves in discussions of the social, political, and cultural issues of the Kingdom. Curse you, people who give a damn!
As a result, it’s pretty hard to ignore the abysmal state of affairs. Take Ieng Sary’s death, for instance. One of the top Khmer Rouge officials sitting
the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, Ieng died last week at the age of 88 (87? I’ve got conflicting information), effectively escaping justice for his crimes against humanity. Everyone knew this would happen. No one seems surprised. The kicker, though, is that his progeny currently hold posts in the Cambodian government. That this is so also should not shock, but what does is the fact that many people deny that the Khmer Rouge still control Cambodia. Admittedly, they’ve changed their name from Khmer Krahom (Red Khmer) to CPP (Cambodian People’s Party). Apart from that, the only real difference is that they’ve shed their communist trappings. The current and permanent PR, himself, exists in clear testament to this.
The sad joke that is the Khmer Rouge Tribunal seems to depress the older people around me, whereas folks my age don’t really bother themselves to discuss it. For someone like me, who isn’t a native of Cambodia and of course has no memories of the Khmer Rouge, it seems like a distant affair. I tend to be more struck by the impunity and violence that I see and hear about on a daily basis.
Incidents like the horrific hit-and-run accident which killed three children and injured eight other people are what get to me. The driver, a 23-year-old medical student, smashed into a crowd of people after she tried to escape from an earlier accident wherein she hit a motorbike. People are saying she fled that first accident because she feared vigilante justice from bystanders. Yes, it’s so that that happens, with thieves and robbers and even occasionally drivers, but rarely are the wealthy and powerful held to account, by onlooking citizens or the courts or anyone else. I am of the opinion that she drove away not simply out of fear, but because she felt no responsibility for her actions whatsoever. She probably figured that she was better off fleeing the scene, knowing the police wouldn’t come looking for her if she got away, than staying and facing up to what she’d done.
The rich and powerful in Cambodia see their car as a symbol of their wealth and status. Lexus LX, Land Cruiser, Range Rover, Hummer, 4Runner– these are the names that command respect and admiration. Motorbikes are also status symbols, but of course their owners would trade up in a heartbeat. Ain’t nobody want a lowly bicycle, and if you happen to be unlucky enough to ride one, take extra precaution on the roads; bicycles get absolutely no respect. There is an unwritten rule of the road here which dictates that the larger and more expensive vehicles wins. Never ever ever walk out in front of a car. No one will be brought to justice after they run you over and keep on going.
It’s hard for me to feel any sympathy for the hit-and-run medical student. Every day I witness intolerable disrespect for motorbikes, tuk tuks, cyclists, and pedestrians by high-status SUV and truck drivers. They represent everything I loathe about class in Cambodia. When I witness their drivers’ self-entitled behavior, as if the road were theirs alone, I feel rather hopeless about the whole situation.
Usually I take hope from my students and friends, particularly the younger ones. They can smile in the face of all that is wrong with Cambodia and the world as we know it, and their hopeful nature is rather catching. Nevertheless, I find it difficult to agree with my young students when I’m riding my bike to and from work. There’s not much justice to be had here, be it for the victims of the Khmer Rouge atrocities or the average Dara on the street. Mahatma Gandhi said that the weak can never forgive; forgiveness is a quality of the strong. Somehow I think the weak would rather have justice.